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PART 1 – W3C eGov Note: Improving Access to Government through Better Use of the Web

Cross-posted from my design blog.

Today the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) eGovernment Interest Group published a Note which is the culmination of their first year of analysis on the history, current state, and hopeful future of eGovernment. Entitled Improving Access to Government through Better Use of the Web, the document serves as a great first step toward codifying the ways which eGovernment should be utilized to serve a variety of roles and interests. Much of the document provides an overview of the materials and assumptions used to develop the analysis and direction of the Interest Group; I’m just going to pull out a few of the ‘graphs that caught my eye and comment on them. This is the first of two posts on this note, as I’m only halfway through it.

“While increasingly cognizant of the opportunities afforded by social media, typically governments are still operating a broadcasting paradigm. Web sites are a vehicle for mass communication and for the delivery of transactional services. In this environment statistics showing the scale of usage are celebrated as indicators of success in themselves. The structure of a government Web estate is often organizationally driven. This is problematic as the structures of government continually change, resulting in significant disruption to the presentation of government on the Web. Government departments can be surprisingly transient entities. Transposed to namespaces and URIs this is quick sand [sic] on which to build an essential information infrastructure using the Web.

Firmly in the provide mode many governments have devised a channels strategy for their Web estate. This has been developed primarily from a communications perspective. What is more generally absent is a data strategy from a Web engineering perspective. It is rare in government to think about Web site development as the engineering of basic information infrastructure.

The reality is that not many officials responsible for commissioning or managing government Web sites are familiar with the basic principles of the Web‚ for example Architecture of the World Wide Web [WEBARCH]. Unfortunately, lacking a government context and being aimed at a more expert audience, the W3C guidelines and specifications are almost impenetrable to many Web decision makers in government.”

Trends and Modalities of the Web and the Information Consumer

This essentially boils down to the idea that most government entities are stuck talking at their constituents instead of to or with them. It’s like watching the evening news, citizens have to take whatever is given to them, and don’t have easy means of responding or interacting, other than passively. It’s a Web 1.0 mindset, but one that government entities are very comfortable with; it provides total message control and requires the least amount of overhead both in terms of the work required to post and thought required for how useful the content will be. That sounds pretty harsh, but I’m building a picture here. (I think it is the same one that the Interest Group is building as well.) Consider that

“David Weinberger, one of the co-authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto [CLUETRAIN], observes that, “there is an inverse relationship between control and trust”. If true that has profound implications for government. Governments may seek to trade a loss of control through greater transparency and openness in return for an anticipated increase in public trust.”

What Is Participation and Engagement?: Participation

and that

“Public servants need to be given access to the Web sites that citizens are using in order for them to be able to engage. The “lock-down” culture that exists in many government IT departments often restricts access to the more interactive Web sites for security reasons. This badly hampers the effective engagement with online communities by public servants. Many governments are blocking employee access to Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, and others where conversations occur, interaction is embraced, individuals align around similar goals, issues, and interests, and participatory and engaged communities are formed. Security issues, employee rights and misdeeds, and lack of familiarity with the tools are impacts that governments must content [sic] with, however, in taking time to do so limits the amount of participation, feedback, and interaction from constituents.”

(emphasis mine) – Access of Public Servants to Web Sites that Citizens Are Using

and it becomes obvious that

“There needs to be training and support for public servants in the use of appropriate tools and techniques to use the Web to engage, particularly for the development of public policy. Engaging with online communities over the development of public policy will involve significant culture change in government. To achieve it will require clear leadership at senior levels. As the use of the Web for engagement is so new in government there are few people with both the practical knowledge and the seniority and experience to provide this leadership.”

(emphasis mine) – Training, Support and Cultural Change

The emerging picture is described quite tactfully, but the easiest way to explain it is by being quite blunt. Many senior decision-makers at government entities are any number of the following:

  • Ignorant of the opportunities that the Internet has to offer them in terms of engaging their citizens;
  • Aware of the opportunities, but afraid or ignorant on how to implement them;
  • Unwilling or afraid to release control over their message in order to provide additional services outside of the “broadcast paradigm”; and
  • Unable to implement or utilize these options due to budgetary, personnel or various other economic or bureaucratic reasons.

This is a great justification for continuing the W3C eGovernment Interest Group. As I saw on a Twitter feed today, someone needs to be able to “translate tech to wonk.” That’s definitely something that this Interest Group can do, by

  • Providing guidance for senior officials – walking them down the path to more effective use of their web presence;
  • Defining best practices and standards for the implementation of current and developing web technologies; and
  • Offering direction toward other possibilities that will encourage further innovation in eGovernment practices.

One last quote for today:

“When government information is made available through portals, e.g. the so called one-stop shops, the government intends to build the consumer’s view in order to provide the information in the most usable way. Even when the PSI is provided by means of an API, the methods to access it are often restricting the view that a given consumer can have or need of that information.

Providing Open Government Data allows the consumer to use the information in the most appropriate way to achieve the intended goal.”

What Are the Main Benefits of Publishing Open Government Data?: Multiple views, not just one

This is exactly what Jeff Veen talks about when he encourages folks to not tell users a story with your site or application, but instead allow visitors to use your site or application to tell their own story. I talked a bit about this in my post about Jeff Veen & Hay Net. User-empathy is definitely something that many government websites could use a bit more of.

More on all of this once I’ve had a chance to read the rest of the note.

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Great sneak preview and observation. This is on my reading list for the week. W3C is another great group pushing government forward on gov 2.0. Enough pushing and we’ll get this rock to the top and down the hill.